I have just returned from a three-day retreat at the East Mountain Retreat Center in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. It is a place of intentional silence. They receive two to three retreat guests at a time as well as some occasional hikers from the Appalachian Trail, which passes about half a mile away. The guests do not talk to one another; simply smile and nod as we pass one another along the way. We make our own meals from what the center provides with the exception of dinner, which is provided by our host, Rev. Lois Rose. Rev. Lois cooks a simple meal which she leaves on the stove at 6 along with a bowl for each guest. We serve ourselves and clean up afterwards.
We are encouraged to have a time of prayer and meditation twice every day. There is a spacious meditation room large enough for groups but typically it is used only by one person at a time. If it is occupied, we wait our turn, giving the space and time our neighbor needs to complete his or her prayer. The center has meditation supplies from several different traditions, kneelers, cushions and two well-worn chairs for those who like to sit. A Russian orthodox cross icon sits next to a seated Buddha and a Tibetan singing bowl. The bay window one faces looks out upon forest and mountain range. (My bedroom was in a room underneath so I woke to the same view).
Outside of that our time is our own. There are trails to walk. There are books to read and puzzles to assemble. Many people bring a journal for writing. We are invited to explore the area and pay attention. We have nothing that we have to do and so we are free to do anything.
My own exploration was a little more extensive than I expected. The first full day I walked to the top of East Mountain, walking up the trails of a nearby ski area. Two owls flew above me as I passed by. The expansive view of the Berkshires from the top was worth the climb, but I had noticed another trail along the way, following a brook and going further into the woods. The trail was lightly used but passable. Beyond the ski area, the land was all state forest land and, at one point the state had put walkways over marshy areas, but they had been pretty chewed up by 4x4 drivers. However, since it was August the path was mostly dry.
An adventurous impulse grew within me and I decided that I would follow this path until it ended. I had no map, no supplies and no knowledge of the distance. A couple of times I considered turning around but trusted I would either end up at a road or another path out of the forest. The path was easy walking, but I walked about an hour away from the start of the path which was itself about half an hour from the retreat center.
The path ended at a T and looking to either side I saw the white rectangular blazes of the Appalachian Trail; to the right, the path to Georgia; to the left, the path to Maine. I headed left toward the road that would bring me back to the retreat center. Along the way I encountered several hikers making their way south with sturdy boots and serious backpacks. Many of them looked at me strangely but kindly. One offered me water. It is unusual to meet anyone on this trail with no equipment to speak of wearing a pair of not-so-serious walking shoes. I walked another three miles on the trail until I came to Buel Lake Road and another mile home. For the first time in a very long time, I took a nap in the afternoon (another pastime encouraged by the center).
The nights were dark. The rooms have electricity but there are no exterior lights to be seen. I went to bed earlier than my habits at home since it was fully night by 9 p.m. I slept soundly but strangely, most nights waking up for about half an hour in the middle of the night, possibly nudged by the light of the waxing moon.
The last evening, the moon rose, full and orange over the mountains. Another guest and I greeted it with grateful silence. Shortly after, fireworks erupted from a festival at the ski area. We could see some of them bursting over the treetops: greens, reds, blues and purples, flashing, spreading, disappearing into the night sky. These also were greeted with grateful silence.
I know that I cannot live this way and still have a job and family. Yet those three days were an experience of embodied grace. I did not have to do anything. I merely needed to be present. This great gift was one that I see in line with the gospel, a gift I hope I can carry with me a little longer. When there is nothing you have to do, you are free to do anything.